How to Simplify Life with Meal Mapping

Instead of trying to come up with a complicated meal plan, Katherine often suggest using what she calls a MEAL MAP. A Meal Map is a general outline of the types of meals you will create throughout the week, leaving flexibility for changes and adaptation.

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By Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN

Introduction

Anyone else feel completely overwhelmed by trying to stay on top of a meal schedule along with all of the other things we as moms have clouding our minds?   

I can tell you which kid has to be where, and with what items, every minute of the day, but when it comes to dinner, it often feels like just one step too far for my busy mom brain.  

Simplicity to the rescue!  

Instead of trying to come up with a complicated meal plan, I often suggest using what I call a MEAL MAP instead.   A Meal Map is a general outline of the types of meals you will create throughout the week, leaving flexibility for changes and adaptation.  

Creating a meal map relies on a few key principles: 

  • Embrace simplicity 
  • Keep a stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry 
  • Identify a few basic recipes with flexible ingredients

Using a Meal Map isn’t for everyone.  But if you’re in a rut, and these principals sound like things you can work towards, then let’s get started and dig into each step…

Instead of searching for complicated recipes, consider thinking of meals as rotating variations of the same building blocks.

Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN

Embrace Simplicity

Anyone else feel like we’ve made meal planning and nutrition way too complicated?  Most people come to me exhausted from looking for recipes and often give up before they even start cooking.

Instead of searching for complicated recipes, consider thinking of meals as rotating variations of the same building blocks. Most healthy, balanced meals are composed of the same basic building blocks:

  • Proteins (vegetarian, animal, or seafood)
  • Carbohydrates (grains, root veggies, legumes, fruit)
  • Non-starchy Vegetables 
  • Fats, Sauces, & Seasonings 

Using this building block framework, some simple healthy meals could include chili with a side salad, sheet-pan roasted salmon, potatoes, and brussels sprouts, a well rounded charcuterie board (think meat, cheese, smoked salmon, olives, dips, raw veggies, and/or crackers), store-bought rotisserie chicken with broccoli and a baked sweet potato, scrambled eggs with greens and a side of frozen hash browns, or, frozen pizza with some steamed broccoli.  The combinations are endless and can look very different from meal to meal without getting overly complicated.

Keep A Stocked Fridge, Freezer and Pantry

If your goal is to cook more at home, you have to have food on hand.  It’s also critical to remind yourself that this is something that will need to happen over and over (being real here ladies).

As long as you are cooking at home, you will also have to shop for ingredients – so, find a way to make it happen regularly. The good news is there are a ton of grocery delivery options out there, or if you prefer to shop yourself, put it on your calendar so that it happens every week, just like you would a doctor’s appointment or a fitness class.  

And here’s the big trick.  Make sure to stock ALL parts of your kitchen – the pantry, fridge, and freezer, starting with the freezer.  I cook more frozen veggies than fresh many weeks.

  • Frozen items that are great to have on hand include broccoli, green beans, peas, spinach or kale, cauliflower rice, peppers, and all kinds of frozen fruit.
  • Stock the pantry with items that you will use regularly in your meal map and make sure to have plenty since you will use these week after week. This includes root veggies, onions and garlic, grains (rice, pasta, quinoa, oats, tortillas), canned beans and tomatoes, olive and avocado oil, nuts and seeds, jars of salsa, nut butters, olives, and so on.

Save fridge space for things that you prefer raw or don’t want to cook like mixed greens, herbs, fruit, avocados, eggs, milks, cheese, and easy to grab and eat veggies like baby carrots, peppers, cucumbers and snap peas.

Save the complicated recipes for the weekends when you (hopefully) have some help with the kids and a glass of wine in hand.

Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN

Identify A Few Basic Recipes With Flexible Ingredients

Once you have the concept of building blocks in your head, you can start to identify a few go-to recipes and formulas that you can use with rotating ingredients.  Again, the more simply you can think, the easier it will be.  Save the complicated recipes for the weekends when you (hopefully) have some help with the kids and a glass of wine in hand.  

The key to this step is identifying recipes, or concepts, that can be made with flexible parts.  That way, instead of having to come up with new recipes, you can just rotate the ingredients.

Don’t forget the value of a sauce, dressing, or fresh herbs; simply mixing up the dressing or sauce you use with the same dish can make it feel completely different from one week to the next.  

Some examples:  

  • Tacos that can be made with ground beef, turkey, chicken, or fish, as well as different types of toppings
  • Stir Fry that can use different proteins and just about any vegetable you have in the fridge or freezer 
  • Sheet Pan meals using a variety of veggies (broccoli, brussels sprouts, peppers, asparagus,…), starchy veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, winter squash,…), and proteins (chicken, beef, tempeh, legumes, fish,…) 
  • Pasta, Grain Bowls or Salads using different veggies, dressings or sauces, grains, and proteins 
  • Soups or Chili can often seem very different but many use the same basic ingredients (onions, garlic, broth, canned tomatoes, beans, and protein (ground meat, shreddable chicken breast, etc).

Putting Your Meal Map To Work

As you transition to this strategy, my first suggestion is to go slow and know it will take time to build your list.  Getting started is always going to be harder as you identify which recipes work and which do not. However, the longer you do this, the more you will identify your winner recipes that can be used over and over, and are always gobbled up by the family.

Aim to take on no more than one or two new recipes each week or I promise you will get burnt out!  I don’t expect even the best of cooks to prepare dinner from scratch seven nights a week, so plan on take-out, leftovers, or dinners out at least a few times a week to keep yourself sane and proud of the cooking you are doing.  

Once you have a list of even just 4-6 recipes, you can start to assemble your Meal Map for two weeks at a time.  Some people find it easier to repeat the same type of dish each week (ie. Taco Tuesday or Takeout Thursday) but others prefer to do it every other week.  Then, stock your fridge, freezer and pantry accordingly and then you can shop for the rotating ingredients based on what is on sale, in season, or what you are in the mood for.  

Now you’re ready to go!   

If you are already a Meal Mapping pro let us know what your favorite dishes to use are. Or if you have never heard about this concept let us know what dish you might start with as you get going.

Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Masters degree in Public Health with nearly fifteen years of experience in community public health and private nutrition counseling.  Her work experience includes individual and group health counseling, interactive workshops, food systems consulting, non-profit program development and management, and safe skin care advocacy and promotion.

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